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How McCain Lost His Brand

From maverick to crank in an instant.

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Illustration by André Carrilho  

I have sat across from Chris Matthews enough times now, participating in that psychotropic ritual known as Hardball, that I thought I’d heard it all—but then the other night he uncorked a doozy that actually rendered me speechless. (No, that is not a misprint.) “Let’s start with John McCain,” he said to me on the air shortly after the first presidential debate between McCain and Barack Obama. “Do you think he was too troll-like tonight? You know, too much of a troll?” I laughed. “Seriously,” Chris went on. “Do people really want to put up with four years of that? Of [him] sitting there, angrily, grumpily, like a codger?”

As both a media figure and a human being, Matthews is sui generis—and yet what made his comments so remarkable was how unremarkable they were. In the past several weeks, the shift of press-corps sentiment against McCain has been stark and undeniable, even among heavies such as Matthews long accused by the left of being residents of the Arizonan’s amen corner. Jonathan Alter, Joe Klein, Richard Cohen, David Ignatius, Jacob Weisberg: all former McCain admirers now turned brutal critics. Equally if not more damaging, the shift has been just as pronounced, if less operatic, among straight-news reporters. Suddenly, McCain is no longer being portrayed as a straight-talking, truth-telling maverick but as a liar, a fraud, and an opportunist with acute anger-management issues.

In McCain-land, this turn of events has provoked a fit of press-bashing that recalls the complaints lodged, albeit less loudly and indiscriminately, by Hillary Clinton’s people. The New York Times, says McCain chief strategist Steve Schmidt, is a “pro-Obama advocacy organization.” When Politico’s Ben Smith questions some of Schmidt’s (factually dubious, it turns out) assertions, a McCain press aide declares that Smith is obviously “in the tank.” The liberal media is ignoring Tony Rezko, Bill Ayers, and the alleged misdeeds of Joe Biden’s son.

Many of these whinges are purely tactical, others rooted in a genuine sense of grievance. But what all of them ignore is the degree to which the McCain campaign has been complicit in squandering one of the most precious assets its candidate brought to the race: a media dynamic that had previously worked overwhelmingly to his advantage. Indeed, at this moment, McCain and his aides are perilously close to losing control of his public image, if it hasn’t been lost already—a development that, as much as the financial crisis, may ultimately be seen as having driven the final nail into his coffin.

It’s important to remember that just a few months ago, at the conclusion of the Democratic primaries, McCain and Obama stood on roughly level footing with the press. “They were both media darlings,” says Marion Just, a Wellesley professor and consultant to the Project for Excellence in Journalism who studies campaign coverage. “The salient question was which of them would benefit more in the general election.”

McCain’s darlinghood was largely a vestige of his 2000 race in the Republican primaries, when his challenge to George W. Bush and the GOP Establishment, his reformist stances, and, not least, his freewheeling open-access press policy on the Straight Talk Express earned him countless fans among inky-fingered wretches. He emerged from that campaign, despite having lost, as the most popular politician in the nation, and his defiance of Bush on matters such as torture, taxes, and campaign finance only enhanced his stature in the media as a different kind of politician. “His meta-narrative,” says Just, “is that he was authentic, a man of integrity, a man of high moral character.” Or, as McCain’s chief strategist, John Weaver, puts it, “John was the Good Housekeeping seal of approval in American politics.”

But in the middle of the summer, the McCain campaign took a series of steps that appeared on their face to be at odds with the candidate’s gold-plated brand. In the interest of greater message discipline, his advisers eliminated his running back-of-the-bus (or front-of-the-plane) bullshit sessions with reporters. And they turned sharply negative in their approach to Obama, hammering him with a series of ads—seen by some as trivial and trivializing, by others as racially coded, and eventually by most as unexpectedly effective—focused on his status as a celebrity unqualified to be commander-in-chief.

Much of this departure from the modus operandi of “the old McCain” was chalked up to Schmidt, who had run the Bush war room under Karl Rove in 2004 and who believed that running hard negative against Obama was McCain’s only chance to win. But many longtime McCain watchers say that the candidate’s own gathering sense of frustration made him ripe for such a change. “It offended him that Obama walked away from his promise to do town-hall debates—and that the press didn’t seem to care,” says Dan Schnur, McCain’s 2000 communications director. “And then he did a series of nontraditional campaign events, like his poverty tour, and was alternately ignored or mocked by the media. And my guess is that gave Steve much greater leverage in saying, ‘Let’s try a different approach.’ ”


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